I like Breathless enormously — for a certain period I was ashamed of it, but now I place it where it belongs — with Alice in Wonderland. I thought it was Scarface. — Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1962.
While critics at Cannes break their heads trying to parse Jean-Luc Godard's latest enigma, Film socialisme (not to mention the 79-year-old filmmaker's ostentatious no-show for a press conference on the Croisette), Godard's first feature returns to remind us that this increasingly obscurantist genius once possessed a joyful heart.
Breathless marks its 50th anniversary with a rerelease by Rialto Pictures in a crisp new black-and-white 35mm print from a restored negative supervised by the original cinematographer Raoul Coutard, with fresh subtitles by Lenny Borger. For those old enough to have cut their teeth on Godard's first effort at messing with French film orthodoxy while blowing an ambivalent kiss to American gangster movies, the movie comes as a thrilling reminder of how playful the master could be even when building a movie around a two-bit car thief and cop killer tooling around Paris, arguing love and existence with his American squeeze as he runs from the police. Perpetually in motion, raffish and cheap in his fedora and ill-fitting jacket, at once majestic and pathetic in his self-aggrandizing identification with Humphrey Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo's Michel oozes pugnacity to authority and a double-edged promise of seduction and betrayal to Jean Seberg's Patricia, whose angel face will prove to contain its own multitudes.
Panicked by a hectically ad hoc shoot, in which Godard fed the actors their lines while Coutard's shoulder-held camera followed them around a Paris gussied up for a visit by Eisenhower, Belmondo stayed the course only because he was convinced that the movie would never get released. Instead, Breathless made a star out of him, restored Seberg's damaged credibility after Saint Joan, helped launch the French New Wave and spawned countless imitations of its frenetic style.
For all its romantic nihilism about love and life, there's a lightness to Breathless (based on a story, it is often forgotten, by François Truffaut), a willingness to poke America in the ribs rather than punch it in the face that's absent from Godard's later, preachier work. With its jazzy, staccato rhythms and endless referencing of other films and filmmakers (Jean-Pierre Melville does a brief, hilarious turn as a pontificating famous writer, and Cahiers du Cinéma gets a cameo), Breathless makes alienation look like it was a lot more fun in 1960 than in the ponderous gravitas or ante-upping brutality of indie film today. The jaunty insouciance with which these two beauties approach and avoid, rescue and betray, carry their lengthy existential chats from death to ashtrays to Rolls-Royces without blinking an eye, remains as intoxicating as ever — for moviegoers of a certain age.
The Godard fan club grows smaller and more gray-haired with each passing year. The question is, will anyone under 30 show up to see Breathless, when they can have Soderbergh, Tarantino or a million jittery television commercials? Will young moviegoers reared on reflexive 21st-century disaffection — who take for granted the fractured narrative and pop referencing, the handheld cameras and compulsive jump-cutting pioneered by a director many of them have never heard of — groove to Breathless as eagerly as their elders did? Will anyone under 30 care about the fate of Michel and Patricia? Will it matter to them whether it was sadism, nihilism, a fan's fidelity to gangster-movie tropes, or his fabled orneriness that would compel Godard, after wavering over the ending of Breathless, to kill off one lover while leaving the other wondering just whom or what the dying one, at breath's end, was calling "dégueulasse"? For Godard, form and meaning, however ambiguous or inchoate, work in tandem. In an age that makes a fetish out of style, does meaning still matter?